Almost alluding to a poetic note, a clay plaque found in Olympia – the home to ancient Olympics and feats of athleticism, might just pertain to the oldest known extract of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The potential discovery was made courtesy of the three-year-long The Multidimensional Site of Olympia project, a collaborative effort from researchers at Ilia regional unit Ephorate of Antiquities, German Archaeological Institute and the Universities of Darmstadt, Tübingen, and Frankfurt am Mainz.
The plaque was found in an area adjacent to the Atlis – the famed sanctuary of Olympia. Interestingly enough, the date of this object, as preliminary analysis suggests, possibly coincides with the later Roman era (as opposed to the earlier Greek epoch) of 3rd century AD. The slab with its engraved inscription contains 13 verses from the Rhapsody of Odyssey (Odysseus’ speech to his lifelong friend Eumaeus). Suffice it to say, the find was most welcome in the archaeological circles, with the Greek Ministry of Culture noting how the artifact “is beyond its uniqueness, a great archaeological, epigraphic, philological and historical exhibit”.
Now, as for the historical side of affairs, while the Iliad and the Odyssey stand out as the ancient pillars of epic literature from the Western culture, there is some complexity when it comes to their authorship. In essence, while it may seem controversial, Homer is a semi-legendary character, with oral traditions and romanticism possibly playing their part alongside real-life personalities, thus resulting in a refined concoction of fable and history. In any case, beyond the question of single authorship or a string of contributions, most historians believe that the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed sometime around the late 8th or early 7th century BC.
And during this epoch, the writing was not really familiar to most Greeks – and thus the epic poems were recited and sung for the audiences in selected venues like courts of the renowned leaders and during festivals. According to the University of Cincinnati –
A poet could actually improvise a tale in the six-beat rhythm of Greek verse if he knew the plot of his story, the themes, and characters, and had descriptive formulas in mind such as “the wine-dark sea” or “Hector, breaker of horses.
In a fortuitous note for us Classical history aficionados, Georg Danek of the University of Vienna and Stefan Hagel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, had painstakingly reconstructed excerpts from the Odyssey (presented below), thus providing us with a rough notion of how the poems sounded when sung in original ancient Greek. According to the duo –
In the course of the last years, we have developed a technique of singing the Homeric epics, which is appropriate for the primarily oral tradition from which these poems emerge.